Why Political Reputations Must Not Be Tarnished

As Newt Gingrich continues to pledge he'll stay in the race, reporters and Republicans warn that he risks "tarnishing his legacy." But whence began this fear that a prolonged but futile fight for the nomination would destroy one's historical record for posterity?

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The cliché: As Newt Gingrich continues to pledge he'll stay in the race for the Republican nomination until the convention, the media grows ever more concerned for ole' Newt, warning that he risks "tarnishing his legacy." But whence began this fear that a prolonged but futile fight for the nomination would destroy one's historical record for all of time?

"His White House bid had all the makings of an improbable comeback, but it’s now coming to a far more ignominious end than he imagined, a finish that risks tarnishing his political legacy," write Politico's Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. "[S]ome friends of the former speaker have expressed concern that his insistence on staying at the bar long after it has closed will tarnish his legacy," reports The Daily Caller's Jamie Weinstein. National Journal's Alex Roarty echoes, "But a continued jeremiad against the likely Republican nominee, including an insistence on taking his campaign to the convention, will tarnish Gingrich’s legacy, some GOP figures say." Gingrich loves history, so this argument ought to persuade him, right?

Where it's from: One would assume there's a steady precedent for otherwise well-regarded figures "tarnishing their legacy" by bowing out of a run for the presidency too late, but actually, there doesn't seem to be much evidence for this. To understand where it got its start, perhaps it's instructive to look back to 1800, the first really fiercely contested presidential election in American politics. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as a president-vice president ticket for their party. But when they tied for electoral votes, Burr saw his chance and refused to cede the election to his running-mate Jefferson, throwing the decision to a deadlocked House of Representatives. If you think the length of the race between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney hurts the country, read author Jay Wnik's description of the fear struck by the House fight in his book The Great Upheaval:

The whole experiment seemed to be unraveling. As France had demonstrated all too vividly, constitutions could be unmade as quickly as they were made, and unity could fall apart as rapidly as it was secured.

In other words, Burr's refusal to bow down threatened not only to destroy his legacy, but to destroy the fragile Constitution. Burr's reputation survived at least well enough that he ended up serving as Jefferson's vice president.  Alas, we'll never know how deeply Burr's ill-fated race really did impact our memory of him, because he quickly overshadowed his role in the election by shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel. It's hard to assess, then, how heavily this race would have weighed on America's memory without the larger claim to fame.

Moving into modern politics, though, there's even less justification for the fear that one's legacy might be destroyed. In 1976, California Gov. Jerry Brown got into the Democratic primary very late as part of the Anyone-But-Carter movement, though he arrived too late to prevent Carter from capturing the nomination. The "tarnishing" phrase turned up in a New York Times as a concern of his aides: "Brown's campaign said he'd drop out when Carter's nomination became certain, noting 'he would only tarnish his growing reputation by assuming the role of spoiler, especially in a lost cause.'" It may have been a lost cause, but it didn't hurt his career. Brown ran for president two more times and is, in fact, currently the governor of California.

In 1988, Al Gore ran against Michael Dukakis for the Democratic nomination. As the contest dragged on, the St. Petersburg Times warned, "That's a sticky predicament for Gore, whose candidacy seemed so promising a month ago. Now even some of his friends are suggesting he's fighting a hopeless cause that will tarnish his reputation and leave him deeply in debt." Gore, of course, went on to serve as Vice President and win his party's nomination for president in 2000. Safe to say his 1988 run won't leave much tarnish on his legacy.

And, in the example that should weigh most heavily on our minds, in 2008, as Hillary Clinton's bitter fight with Barack Obama looked increasingly like a losing one, folks sounded the familiar alarm of legacy-tarnishing. Columnist Philip Gailey wrote on May 11, "Clinton could sour this deal — and forever tarnish the Clinton legacy in Democratic politics — if she uses the remaining weeks of the primary season to inflict further damage on Obama's candidacy." Clinton didn't concede until a month later. She's now the Secretary of State and a leading contender for the party's nomination in 2016 ...

Why it's catching onClinton's example should certainly inform those who would warn Gingrich about his legacy. Worth noting: those who warn others about the dangers to their legacies are often the ones with little interest in the subject. The warners' goal is to coalesce the party around whoever is in the lead. As Karl Rove, wrote in today's Wall Street Journal, right now he cares mostly about the potential damage Newt would do, not to himself, but to Romney: "More and more Republicans think such a bloodletting would severely set back the cause of defeating Barack Obama," he writes of a possible brokered convention.

Why else? It's also important that someone's legacy not be tarnished only if they have an actual legacy worth tarnishing. Notably, there's not much warning that Rick Santorum risks "tarnishing his legacy." That's at least in part because he has more justification for staying in the race, but also probably because he lacks Gingrich's long, (usually) successful history in politics. So rest assured, Gingrich, this half-hearted final few months of your campaign won't put a dent in your Wikipedia entry years from now. Just don't shoot the Secretary of the Treasury and you should escape Aaron Burr's fate.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.